Winter Olympics: Image problem dictates banning of marijuana

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MARIJUANA is a prohibited drug in Olympic sport because it conveys the wrong image - not because it is performance enhancing.

It is highly unlikely that Ross Rebagliati would have smoked a joint to boost his snowboarding skills. The pharmacological effects of the drug, set out in the British Medical Association's report on cannabis last year, include "distortion of space and time sense" - not an obvious advantage when hurtling down a couloir.

Much more likely, if he smoked it at all (he claims the last occasion was 10 months ago in April 1997), he did so for relaxation. Many athletes prefer it as a way of winding down to alcohol, which leaves performance- damaging after-effects.

However, as a recreational drug, marijuana has an image problem. The International Olympic Committee had been concerned about the misuse of the drug in the Olympic village and warned that it would test for marijuana in Atlanta in 1996. It was worried that reports of the world's greatest athletes sharing a joint in the evenings would send the wrong message to the millions of young fans for whom they serve as role models.

The problem with the IOC's position is that it does not allow any leeway for marijuana absorbed through passive smoking. The International Ski Federation, anticipating the defence that Rebagliati has put forward (that he had been hanging around in the wrong company), allows a blood level of 15 nanograms per litre in testing. Rabgliati was just over that limt at 17.8 nanograms.

Michele Verroken, the head of the drug testing programme for the UK Sports Council, said: "To get above 15 nanograms just by sitting in a room and absorbing it passively, you would have to be wearing protective goggles. You are talking very thick smoke."